Final Robert Joffrey-created 'Nutcracker' for 2015-16 season

February 17, 2015
The Chicago Tribune
Laura Molzahn


The Joffrey Ballet announced Tuesday that it has commissioned a new "Nutcracker" from choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, which will have its world premiere in Chicago in Dec. 2016 as part of the company's 60th anniversary season. Robert Joffrey's American-themed "Nutcracker," which debuted in 1987 at the University of Iowa while the Joffrey was headquartered in Los Angeles, will have its final performances this upcoming holiday season, Dec. 4-27.

The news of Wheeldon's first collaboration with the Joffrey, part of its 2015-2016 season announcement, represents a major coup for the company and artistic director Ashley Wheater. Wheeldon, an internationally recognized choreographer whose "An American in Paris" is headed to Broadway this spring, is best known in Chicago for the Joffrey company premieres of his justly famous "After the Rain" duet and, last fall, his reimagined yet faithful "Swan Lake."

Wheater says the choreographer was "thrilled" with the company's "Swan Lake" performances.

lRelatedChristine Rocas in "Cinderella"
Christine Rocas in "Cinderella"

But the idea of a Joffrey/Wheeldon "Nutcracker" has been in the works for years: eight, to be exact. Wheater was in New York, working with Wheeldon on a work for Morphoses, Wheeldon's former company. The two old friends went out for lunch, and Wheeldon told Wheater — who'd just been appointed the Joffrey's artistic director — "I'd like to put it out there that I've always wanted to do a 'Nutcracker,' and I've wanted to do it for you."

Wheater, who danced the Snow King at the premiere of Robert Joffrey's "Nutcracker," says he admires the staging he's "been with from day one." But, he adds, "We had to remake the production. It's falling apart, the set, the costumes — they're threadbare." Since everything had to be redone anyway, the Joffrey began asking: What would "The Nutcracker" look like today? What do audiences want?

To have Wheeldon reimagine "The Nutcracker" will be "an extraordinary thing," says Wheater, who's confident that the renowned choreographer's playfulness and imagination will capture audiences at every level. The planned new setting is Chicago’s 1893 World's Fair.

Also upcoming for the Joffrey Ballet:

Wheeldon's "Fool's Paradise," an abstract ballet set to neo-romantic music by Joby Talbot, will receive its Joffrey premiere on the one-weekend "Millennials" program next fall, Sept. 16-20, along with as-yet-untitled world premieres by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Myles Thatcher.

The full-length story ballet "Sylvia," by Milwaukee native John Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973, receives its North American premiere from the Joffrey Oct. 14-25. Neumeier's "Nijinsky" was well received when his company debuted in Chicago in early 2013, so it was disappointing when the Hamburg Ballet's scheduled second appearance in Chicago, a year later, had to be canceled at the last minute due to an electrical fire at the Harris Theater that damaged crucial equipment.

"Bold Moves," Feb. 10-21, 2016, features a world premiere by Ashley Page, a 27-year veteran of the Royal Ballet as both dancer and choreographer, most recently head of Scottish Ballet. The winter program also remounts relatively recent crowd-pleasers: Yuri Possokhov's visually stunning Japanese story ballet "RAkU,"which received its Chicago premiere in September, and Jiri Kylian's "Forgotten Land," last performed here in 2012.

For its spring program, April 20-May 1, 2016, the Joffrey brings back Sir Frederick Ashton's wonderful 1948 staging of "Cinderella," to the equally wonderful Sergei Prokofiev score. Previously performed by the Joffrey only twice, in 2006 and 2010, Ashton's very, very British take on the fairy tale features subtle choreography and robust humor, particularly in the roles of the stepsisters, performed by men. This comic ballet is a great pick for families, especially given the power Ashton invests in our heroine: His Cinderella may be scorned and obscure, but she's never a doormat.